According to court records and interviews with state and federal officials, more than 60 North Carolina remain in prison for violating federal gun possession laws despite the fact that courts have determined they are innocent, USA Today reports.
The men went to prison for allegedly violating the Felony Firearms Act which prohibits gun ownership by felons. The problem however, is that none of them had criminal records serious enough to make them felons under federal law.
USA Today says most of the men don’t even know they are innocent and that the Justice Department has certainly not attempted to notify or identify the them.
In the few cases where the men have come forward to argue their innocence, federal prosecutors have argued in court that they should not be released.
Although the Justice Department maintains that it is not their job to notify prisoners that there are being illegally detained, officials have agreed in court filings that the men are innocent.
The USA Today investigation was only limited to a small fraction of cases from one of the three federal court districts in North Carolina but federal public defenders have so far identified at least 39 others in additional court districts, and are certain to find more.
Prosecutors say they have already agreed to drop dozens of cases in which prisoners’ convictions were not yet final.
Some of the prisoners and their lawyers, USA Today says, were shocked to find out that they were imprisoned for something that turned out not to be a federal crime.
Lawyers say innocence alone might not get them out.
“If someone is innocent, I would think that would change the government’s reaction, and it’s sad that it hasn’t,” an assistant federal public defender in Raleigh, Debra Graves said.
“I have trouble figuring out how you rationalize this. These are innocent people. That has to matter at some point.”